Whither Thou Goest, AFM?

The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada stands at a crossroads in its representation of recording musicians. For those of you in the Los Angeles area, traditionally the center of the recording universe, you may already be aware of the quandary facing us all. If you are a composer wanting to use L.A. union musicians, your options are limited. Usually it is by your working budgets which more and more are shrinking, forcing you to score either without live players at all or with ones a long way from home, with all the compromises this entails. If you are an AFM member who is anything but the composer, from music prep through music performer, you are increasingly feeling the squeeze of divided loyalties: your professional tradition (including union benefits and pension) or your very survival.

At the heart of the problem is the structure of the AFM’s recording contracts, offsetting lower initial session fees with a form of profit-sharing at the back end for those projects actually showing a profit. This model worked for decades, but newly-emerging (and steadily improving) competition showed producers that they could, with impunity, forgo AFM musicians insistent on a lifelong contractual marriage in favor of others eager for a “quickie.” The different rules employed by L.A. meant “where to score” decisions were no longer based just on the elements L.A. did best (quality, versatility, and depth of forces, facilities, and convenience.) As L.A. scoring declined, so did the number of musicians still doing it, and those deferred payments (averaged per person) grew dramatically. This has resulted in a schism, separating brother and sister unionists into camps of the massively profitable few and the underemployed many.

Remember my column on the best often being the enemy of the better? It’s a truism found whenever the price you pay in your headlong pursuit of “only the best” keeps you from even achieving the “better,” much like working a day gig so long to afford a Stradivarius that your playing career never gets out of second gear. It’s true here, too. These agreements which so few find so lucrative are now square pegs in an industry which has become a Swiss cheese of round holes. Even those conspiring on a rival union to supplant a broader-minded AFM haven’t made a case for why an industry which has orphaned so many musicians will suddenly rehire them at traditional levels and compensation just because the name of their union might change.

Because that dreamy traditional future is so doubtful, the true unfortunates are those who have waited patiently in line outside the candy store for their reward, licking the glass window and who, unlike Popeye’s friend Wimpy, “will gladly (and politically) pay today for a hamburger on Tuesday” (or more probably never.) This unblinking allegiance in support of an unattainable “best” over the achievable “better” thus infects the elected leadership of the Local which governs all Los Angeles musicians, producing a “double-whammy” of hemorrhaged recording opportunities and neglected needs on non-recording work deemed unimportant.

Every three years, the AFM film/TV agreements come up for renewal and renegotiation. That time is now. We are the only remaining pool of recording musicians in the world that insists on back-end profit-sharing clauses in all film/TV recording contracts, and such isolationism is only hurting the majority of us. In our current system which excludes so many, if sheer ability and nothing else determines the workloads of the busiest few, won’t Kennedy’s “rising tide lifting all boats,” under a freer, more inclusive system, continue to lift theirs still higher out of simple supply-and-demand? In other words, won’t putting us all back to work still have them as the elite?

AFTRA allows its members, when necessary, to do non-union work without retaliation. If this option is not feasible, perhaps a tiered system of granting a buyout status for certain categories or budgets of projects, should be examined. We’ve seen that the videogame business, which actually dwarfs the film industry, is eager to work with our musicians if only we can find a way to supply what it wants. Only when we recapture our turf can we contemplate pursuing “the best” again.

The mishaps of the Detroit auto industry should have taught us something: The essence of good business is finding a need and supplying it; the epitome of bad business is knowing what the buyers want and insisting on trying to sell them something else.

Let us all get back to work.

Ron Hess is Film Music Magazine’s “The Chart Doctor”. Visit Ron’s website at http://www.ronhessmusic.com


  • Chris
    November 21, 2008 @ 10:04 am


    I have been thinking the same way for a while now but you have put it into words much better than I ever could. To all the big union guys, yes you’re talented and you’ve earned the rewards of that talent…however you ARE cutting your nose of to spite your face. Your tactics and your mindset are going to be the undoing of unionized musical labor. Adapt and thrive or stagnate and die. I think as composers we have seen how much the business has changed over the years and how much we have had to change with it. Often it has not changed in the ways we would like but our choice has been to piss and moan or get busy adapting. Ron, your analogy to the auto industry is spot on. I can’t help but wonder though if any of the hardcore union guys (and gals) are listening…I just don’t think they are and that’s really a shame. There is so much UNION work that could be had by all the talented musicians in and around Los Angeles IF ONLY it was affordable and less complicated to contract.

  • Rick Blanc
    November 29, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

    Bravo Ron! The vision thing — it’s what we need.

  • James McLean
    December 9, 2008 @ 7:18 am

    Dear Mr. Hess

    As someone who collected soundtracks (among other forms of music), and having had to put up with the antics of the AFM in this regard, where the likes of Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith had so many LA scores go unissued thanks to their way of doing business, I’m not sorry to see that they are living now in interesting times, after all the years they were in charge. Naturally, I am more than glad to see the emergence of the Northwest Sinfonia and, one hopes, they will continue to do well. I also hope more of the world’s better orchestras get involved and get their shot at the scoring business, just as the London orchestras and the Berlin Philharmonic have done, and they won’t charge small fortunes anytime a composer wanted a CD. Besides, competition is good. However, if your bid to join Local 47’s board may change this sorry state of affairs, then I wish you every success, but I fear not.

    Best regards


  • sean
    March 25, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    survival is a crappy business model.

  • March 25, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    Neither is “same old-same old” in an industry changing as rapidly as ours. And survival, as the oldest law of nature, isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative…

  • Anthony Adams
    May 8, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    Ah, how I long for the good old days when the only logical reason for recording outside LA was because all the good players were booked. Or…you needed to go to Nashville where most of the authentic country pickers lived. Our business has always been a tough road, but it used to a hell of a lot more fun when we got together with our talented friends who would all contribute to a recording (and gave it a little humanity as well). At the end of the day, I must say how priviledge I feel to have been a part our business during those times. As far as the biz (money) end goes; I really like Ralph’s meats, but if Von’s has a sale for nearly the same thing…….

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